Seven Questions for Tom Breitling

The Golden Nugget’s former co-owner on his foray into online poker, Steve Wynn’s secret to success and how an $8 sandwich helped make him a multimillionaire

Tom Breitling’s career started humbly enough: In the early 1990s, he was a sportscaster and weatherman for a TV station … in Barstow. By decade’s end, Breitling had surfed the dot-com boom to a multimillion-dollar payout, which came in 2000 when he and business partner Tim Poster sold their startup Travelscape to Expedia. By January 2004, Breitling had teamed with Poster again, this time buying the Golden Nugget casinos (both Downtown and in Laughlin) from MGM Mirage. A little more than a year later, the partners sold the two properties for a total of more than $330 million.

Now, following a two-year stint working for Steve Wynn, Breitling is ready for his next gamble: As co-founder and chairman of Fertitta Interactive, the 43-year-old is steering the company into cyberspace via its Ultimate Poker division, a real-money website which leverages the Fertitta family’s other Southern Nevada powerhouse, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It’s the latest chapter in a career that’s already seen plenty of action.

What was the benefit of growing up in Minnesota?

Two words: work ethic. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to a job that I had at a deli when I was a teenager. The ice cream in the bin was rock hard and not easy to scoop out to make a sundae. When one was ordered, I would be the guy to thrust that scooper in there and dig that ice cream out. My parents and my grandparents taught me to always get the job done with a smile.

How did you get into the Las Vegas reservation business?

I got into it because of an $8 veal parmigiana hero. I was in college at the University of San Diego, studying to be a sportscaster—that was my dream, to be on ESPN. One day in the late 1980s, I met a guy from USC, Tim Poster, who was making sports bets, and we went out to lunch. We immediately connected over that veal parmigiana hero.

A little down the road, Tim started a hotel-reservation company—which would turn into Travelscape—with a desk, a chair, a pillow and a telephone. As it started to grow, he needed help to keep up with all the work. Tim recognized that I was the guy who could scoop out the ice cream no matter how rock hard it was, and he asked me to [join] the business as his partner.

Years later, the company that he’d started with a desk, a chair, a pillow and a telephone was sold to Expedia for more than $100 million.

What made Travelscape a good gamble?

Timing. Tim started the business in 1990, only six months after Steve Wynn opened The Mirage. The Mirage was one of the first hotel openings on the Strip in many years, and many new hotels [were built] in the wake of its success—when Luxor, Treasure Island and MGM Grand were built, nearly 12,000 rooms came into the market. So there was supply and demand.

One thing I brought was the idea of selling rooms over the Internet, which [gave] consumers … one-stop shopping for the most popular travel destination on the planet. The Internet was the match that set off all the fireworks for our company.

They say there are two great days for a boat owner: the day you buy the boat and the day you sell it. Can the same be said for a casino owner?

No. And I’m the perfect guy to answer that question, because I am from Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I love boats. The answer really gets to where you are in your life. And maybe it applies to the way you move through different homes at different life stages. When you’re a kid, you live in your parents’ home. Then, maybe, you go off to college and live in a dorm room. Then you get your first job and a small apartment. Then you save some money and buy a home. Then maybe you get married, start to have kids and move to a bigger home.

So, for me at least, buying the Golden Nugget with Tim was being in the perfect place at just the right time in our lives. And when we sold it a year later for more than a $100 million profit, we were doing the right thing at just the right time. Then we went on to work with Steve Wynn, who had owned the Golden Nugget years before us and had moved on to bigger things.

What’s something we wouldn’t know about working for Steve Wynn?

Everyone knows Steve is a great visionary when it comes to designing, developing and operating world-class resort-casino properties. What they don’t know is just how conservative Steve is with his balance sheet. He views his balance sheet as a marketing tool, and it gets him through both the good times and the bad.

Also, he is just as nimble at 70 as he was at 30. He is fascinated with human aspiration. There is a line of his that I’ll never forget: Steve said if he could be plugged into what is human aspiration, he’d be plugged into big juice. Steve doesn’t view work as work. To him, it’s all about being plugged into big juice.

Why get involved with online poker, and why is federal legislation important for Nevada?

I got involved because, to me, it’s big juice. We helped change the world with online travel, and I want to do it again with online gaming. It all begins right here in Nevada.

The best gaming regulations and the best gaming companies have always been from Nevada, which led the way in bricks-and-mortar gaming. Nevada knows how to take the chaos [out] of an unregulated environment—we need to protect consumers, we need to provide law-enforcement tools for the government and we need to construct a proper business environment that creates jobs, generates tax revenue and offers the best and most innovative games in a safe and secure environment. Federal legislation is the best answer.

Simply by following Nevada’s lead, federal legislation would open up the online gaming marketplace, make it safe and help turn it into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Who’s on your short list of guys you’ve met with whom you wouldn’t want to play heads-up poker, and why?

[Executive] Barry Diller—too unpredictable. [TV producer]Mark Burnett—too aggressive. Andre Agassi—too mentally prepared. [Poker pro] Antonio Esfandiari—too good of a player. Tony Bennett—too mature and too seasoned. Jack Binion—come on, do I need to answer that one?